by Ian Mann
February 28, 2017
"A good advertisement for the breadth of musical talent in South Wales". Ian Mann enjoys this unique double bill and looks at "KeyNotes", the new album from the Dave Jones Quartet.
Mansel Davies Trio / Dave Jones Quartet
Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 26/02/2017.
BMJ’s second monthly event of 2017 presented a double bill of Welsh talent with Usk based singer-songwriter introducing his new trio and Port Talbot based pianist and composer launching his freshly released CD “Key Notes”.
MANSEL DAVIES TRIO
Mansel Davies is a guitarist, bassist, vocalist and harmonica player who performs regularly in the South Wales area in line ups ranging from solo to quartet, often under the banner ‘Acoustic Sessions’. As well as writing and singing his own songs he also performs covers across a variety of genres including blues, folk, rock and pop.
Although not strictly a jazz artist Davies is a popular and well regarded artist who has forged strong links with BMJ thanks to his previous performances at the club. In 2015 he appeared as a solo performer on the Blues Stage at the Cantreff Inn as part of that year’s Wall2Wall Jazz Festival and in April 2016 he returned as part of a double bill opposite the Bristol European Jazz Ensemble at the Melville Centre.
I missed the second of these shows as I was covering Cheltenham Jazz Festival but I did manage to catch a fleeting glimpse of Davies at Wall2Wall, seeing just two numbers, but what I heard was impressive. It was immediately obvious that he was a skilled guitarist and an accomplished and convincing vocalist with a relaxed and confident stage demeanour.
For tonight’s performance Davies had brought along some musical reinforcements, apparently at the suggestion of jazz vocalist, BMJ stalwart and fellow Usk resident Debs Hancock, who unfortunately wasn’t present to see her idea bear impressive fruit.
Joining Davies on stage in the Melville Theatre were fellow guitarist Paul Wyman and cellist Emma Archer for what was the first performance by the newly christened Mansel Davies Trio. The focus was exclusively on Davies’ original songs and in this listening environment one was able to appreciate just what a talented songwriter he is.
The opening “Bridge Of Sighs” was a duet between the two guitarists with Wyman’s array of foot pedals being utilised judiciously to layer the sounds of the guitars and add a subtle dash of extra colour and texture. This served Davies well, adding resonance to his assured vocals and evocative, intelligent lyrics.
Davies and Wyman then combined again on “Open Your Heart To Me” with Davies’ voice smoky but well articulated.
Davies then performed a clutch of songs in a duo with Archer beginning with the poignant “Where The Young Lovers Go?” with the folk tinged sound of the cello adding a Nick Drake sense of melancholy to the music.
“Hey Mama” was inspired by a conversation Davies overheard in a bar and was delivered in the persona of the young woman whose words he had overheard. Archer’s cello, both plucked and bowed, added weight, depth and colour to the arrangement in a song addressing the issues of youthful wilfulness and parental acceptance.
I remembered “The Edge Of The World” with its “where did you go refrain” from from the Cantreff performance. There it was delivered by Davies solo on voice, guitar and harmonica but here this tale of love, loss and longing was given additional depth and poignancy by the mournful ring of Archer’s cello. Her sound was sometimes reminiscent of that of Ray “Chopper” Cooper, once of Oysterband but now a well established solo artist.
“Ten Years In The Wilderness” was graced with a unique trio arrangement, one that the three musicians had worked out during the afternoon leading up to the gig. Although freshly minted it was also highly effective and the success of this piece, plus the gig as a whole, was particularly pleasing to Davies who spoke later of the possibility of the trio becoming a regular working and recording unit.
That said the set concluded with a further duet between Davies and Wyman on the direct and hard hitting “I Wait For You”, which again featured the power of Davies’ tough but tender vocals and also featured the leader demonstrating his chops as a guitarist with the only genuine instrumental solo of the set.
The nominally ‘jazz’ audience gave Davies and his colleagues an excellent reception which was a tribute to both the quality of the performances and of Davies’ song-writing. I’d certainly welcome the opportunity of hearing these songs again if Davies ever gets the opportunity to document them on disc. I’m sure he’s had his share of ‘covers’ gigs in noisy pubs with nobody really listening so tonight’s event was probably a refreshing change for him with an attentive audience appreciating these well written and skilfully performed original songs.
Wall2Wall jazz is very much the watchword at BMJ and during the interval it’s fast becoming something of a tradition for Martha Skilton, best known as highly accomplished saxophonist, to play a selection of jazz standards on the upright piano in the bar area. “I’m on the honky tonk again tonight” she told me before the show.
Although the audience essentially treats her playing as background music while they analyse the first set and recharge their glasses for the second her contribution is nevertheless appreciated and February’s selection included such meteorologically appropriate tunes as “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “Misty”. The latter was requested by my mate Richard who explained that he’d always wanted to utter the words “play ‘Misty’ for me”.
DAVE JONES QUARTET
While Mansel Davies was musing on the possibility of recording with his brand new trio at some point in the future, pianist and composer Dave Jones has already amassed an impressive back catalogue including the trio album “Impetus” (2009) and the more expansive offerings “Journeys (2010) and “Resonance” (2012), both of which featured a core quartet including saxophonist Lee Goodall plus additional brass and strings. All three albums highlighted just what an accomplished and ambitious composer Jones can be and all attracted an impressive amount of critical acclaim from the London based jazz media.
In recent years Jones’ preferred working group has been a quartet featuring Goodall on reeds, Ashley John Long on double bass and, when available, the Irishman Kevin Lawlor at the drums. This line up released the excellent concert recording “Live At AMG” in 2014. Jones has since released “Postscript” (2016), an intimate duo set recorded with Long and has appeared as a sideman on Lawlor’s two solo albums “Exodus” (2013) and “Eight” (2015). Other credits include work with the jazz/folk outfit Burum and with Coltrane Dedication, the free-wheeling aggregation co-led by saxophonists Lyndon Owen and Caractacus Downes, who visited BMJ in January in their other guise as the Eira / Snow Duo.
2017 sees Jones leading a new quartet and launching a new album, “KeyNotes”. Tonight’s date was the official launch of a recording that sees Jones ‘going back to basics’ with a new band featuring Ben Waghorn on tenor sax and flute and Lloyd Haines, who also played on “Journeys” and “Resonance” at the drums. Long remains on bass but some tracks also feature him doubling on vibraphone, his second instrument. The ridiculously talented Long started playing vibes on gigs as a member of the Heavy Quartet and already has that whole four mallet thing off to a fine art, he’s a hugely accomplished and convincing vibraphone soloist and it’s good to hear that side of his talent finally documented on disc.
No vibes tonight though (shame) as Long concentrated on the bass, and no Lloyd Haines either. The young drummer, a graduate of the Jazz Course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff is now making his way on the London jazz scene. His place tonight was filled at short notice by the super-versatile Bristol based musician Andy Hague, better known as a trumpeter and band-leader but also a highly accomplished drummer who filled in brilliantly for the advertised Andy Tween.
Musically “KeyNotes” may represent a return to core values but it’s still an excellent album featuring some characteristically inventive writing from Jones allied to some excellent playing. The album includes informative liner notes from the acclaimed saxophonist Simon Spillett which add light to the six new original pieces from Jones’ pen.
Tonight the quartet were to perform the entire album, in sequence, making this a 100% genuine album launch gig. The tune titles are all one word, but totally descriptive, and in most cases may well have started life as working titles.
The quartet commenced with album opener “Sands”, originally written as a solo piano piece, introduced by a reflective passage of unaccompanied piano from Jones followed by Waghorn picking out the haunting, folk tinged melody on tenor and sounding a little like Jan Garbarek in the process. With the addition of bass and drums the music began to gain momentum, the melody providing the jumping off point for solos from Jones, Waghorn and Long, a variation from the order on the album where Long goes first.
The more self descriptive “Blues” saw Waghorn stretching out at length on tenor, his sound at times reminiscent of both John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. The Bristol based saxophonist has previously appeared in bands led by pianists Dave Stapleton and Geoff Eales, plus Hague in his trumpeter guise. Waghorn was followed by the ebullient Jones with a sparkling piano solo and by the remarkable Long at the bass. Finally Hague traded fours with Jones and Waghorn as the quartet managed to find plenty of fresh things to say within a very well established format. As Spillett, suggests perhaps this is Jones’ greatest skill as a composer.
Jones likes to describe the music to be heard on “KeyNotes” as “back to basics – but not basic” which is a pretty fair description and were the words he chose to introduce “Afro”, a piece inspired by the music of fellow pianist McCoy Tyner. With Waghorn switching to flute the piece avoided the obvious Tyner clichés and featured engaging solos from Waghorn, Jones and Long. The recorded version also offers a solo from Long on vibes but he’s also an astonishing bass soloist, inventive and highly dexterous. A bass solo from Ashley John Long is never boring.
The recorded version of “Funky” also features Long on vibes but tonight the quartet’s rendition did exactly what it said on the tin with its catchy melodic hooks and deep grooves and extended solos from Waghorn on tenor and Jones on piano, saxophonist Waghorn digging in determinedly in a manner that also led Spillett to compare him with Billy Harper and the late Bob Berg.
“Departures” was the first tune written for the album and I seem to recall Jones’ then quartet performing it at Swansea International Jazz Festival back in 2015. It’s an attractively melodic piece and here featured Waghorn on tenor, the recorded version features him duetting with himself on flute. Waghorn led the solos off on tenor, followed by Jones on piano who further demonstrated his thorough knowledge of jazz piano styles and a good right hand / left hand balance - “I always like some funk in my jazz” he subsequently explained. Long also impressed with his virtuoso bass soloing, much of it up around the bridge. He is also a highly accomplished classical bassist who plays with a number of leading baroque ensembles.
Lastly we heard “Latin”, the final track on the album which deployed the appropriate rhythms and featured an initially tentative Waghorn on flute as he shared the solos with Jones on piano and Hague with a well constructed closing drum feature. Hague was excellent all evening delivering a highly competent and supremely supportive performance from behind the kit, nominally his second instrument. I was impressed.
As an album “KeyNotes” maintains the high standards we have come to expect from Dave Jones and business was brisk at the CD stall after the gig as an appreciative audience gave the quartet an excellent reception. Jones has mentioned bringing in another vibes player and perhaps performing this material as a quintet, which should be well worth seeing if he can make it happen. In the meantime we have this highly entertaining album to enjoy.
Once again the ‘double bill’ format seemed to work very well with audience members seeming to appreciate the variety on offer and savouring the differences between the two acts. Occasionally bands have to stop just as they seem to be getting into their stride but that certainly wasn’t the case tonight and both acts were “on it” from the off. It’s the same principle of diversity that makes Wall2Wall such an artistic success with so many different musical styles on offer.
Tonight represented an excellent evening of richly varied music and was a good advertisement for the breadth of musical talent in South Wales.
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